All entries for Friday 18 January 2008

January 18, 2008

Hard Dollars

“The thoughtful man must shortly say, ‘I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar’ and admit to himself that it is not the welfare of the children, but family pride, which inspires these enormous legacies.”

As was written down by Andrew Carnegie in 1889, a “great American capitalist” in the words of the Economist.

Where from comes the word dollar? That is what we’re concerned with here. When I was doing editing work for a publication on wages and currency in different historical periods two summers ago, I came across a theory which I from then on always held to be true. The word dollar is an ethymological evolution of the German word Thaler (“from a valley”), a coin which was previously used in Austria and which was then brought to the United States.

I Wiki-ed it (Wikipedia knows everything!) and found that this theory is broadly true, however, the entire history of the word is slightly more complicated and more fun.

First, there was a silvermine in Bohemia called Joachimsthal. Many coins were made from the silver that was dug up, so soon silver coins gained the popular nickname “Joachimsthaler”. Its shorthand, thaler, is found in the names of many old currencies: tolar (Slovenia, already pretty similar to dollar), daler (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) and daalder (the Netherlands). I am not sure of these names in other countries, but what I do know is that the daalder existed as a name up to the introduction of the Euro, and represented 1,50 gulden, it’s cousin the Rijksdaalder being 2,50 gulden.

As often, the Dutch earn a footnote in history on this account. Their Leeuwendaalder (lion’s dollar) was already known across Europe, and they then brought it with them to New Amsterdam, the city which later came to be known as New York. From Bohemia via the Netherlands to the US, and from there all over the world.

The dollar sign ($), however, is said to be to the credit of the Spanish. It might have come from a P written on top of an S, representing the word pesos.

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